Philadelphia museum tells history of America through a Jewish lens

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

PHILADELPHIA—Regardless of whether you’re Jewish or not, no trip to the City of Brotherly Love is complete without a visit to the National Museum of American Jewish History, which celebrated its two-year anniversary this month.

Located across the street from Independence Mall, the gleaming five-story, $150 million Jewish museum is dedicated to telling the full story of Jews in America. In fact, it’s the first museum in the country to offer a chronological look at the American Jewish experience beginning in 1654, when the first permanent Jewish settlement began in New Amsterdam, to the present.

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Three and a half expansive floors are organized by periods so that visitors can walk through displays of artifacts, immersive environments and interactive exhibits to see and hear religious, economic, cultural, social and political stories of Jews in this country. My suggestion is to start on the fourth floor, which begins with the “Foundations of Freedom” (1654-1880) and the first wave of Jewish immigrants to America, and work your way down (to present day).

The third floor, “Dreams of Freedom” (1880-1945) traces the height of Jewish immigration and its impact on this country. Of the 20 million immigrants who came to America from 1880-1924, 2 millions were Jews, and the majority settled in East Coast cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

One of my favorite exhibits during this era is a film showing the many contributions Jews made to the entertainment industry; we virtually built the Hollywood studio system, yet rarely did early films have Jewish characters or themes.

Here, too, we learn about notorious Jewish kingpins such as underworld figures Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen and Arnold Rothstein, nicknamed “the brains” behind baseball’s 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal. Anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazism are also given their due, and we see how themes of limitations and persecution – even lynching – have persisted through hundreds of years of American Jewish history.

Nonetheless, much that is uplifting and celebratory is featured here, too. On the second floor, “Choices and Challenges of Freedom” (1945-present) tells of the migration of Jews to the suburbs – and our assimilation — following World War II, along with the American Jewish role in championing the State of Israel and Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement.

On the first floor, an amazing multimedia exhibition pays tribute to the notable achievements of 18 distinguished Jewish Americans including Irving Berlin, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Sandy Koufax, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand.

School-age visitors should find plenty to keep them from being bored, be it exploring an immigrant tenement to trying on pioneer clothes to playing in an early 20th century schoolhouse. A group of middle-schoolers seemed to enjoy climbing on bunk beds in a mock overnight camp and perusing dozens of digital photos that commemorate 60 years of Jewish summer camping in the United States.

In addition, visitors of all ages are encouraged to add their own stories and family histories in the “It’s Your Story” video recording booth located on the second floor.

Of course no Jewish museum would be complete without a kosher café and a place to shop – the Jewish museum has both (the gift shop boasts one-of-a-kind and unusual Judaica) as well as an education center, 200-seat theater and multi-purpose event space on the top floor that holds 600 and overlooks Independence Mall.

If you go, plan on spending two to three hours. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. In addition to Monday, it’s closed on major Jewish and secular holidays. Admission is $12 for adults and $11 for seniors 65 and older and youth 13-21. Children under 13 are free as are active military (with identification).

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